Mass, Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein needs no introduction as a master of musicals with many successful stage productions under his belt. It was no wonder that Jacqueline Kennedy approached him with a special request for a mass to be performed during the inauguration of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The work’s premiere on 8 September 1971 did not enjoy much critical acclaim, but audiences and record sales reaffirmed its worth. Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is part of the summer programme of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The monumental performance of singers, dancers, actors, and a full orchestra finds its perfect setting at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
To begin with, Mass is not really a mass in the traditional sense. Bernstein followed the Catholic pattern to a degree, and many of the lyrics are sung in Latin. However, both the composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz contributed additional texts, and avid listeners will also identify Hebrew passages during “Sanctus”. Popular songwriter Paul Simon also wrote a segment entitled “Half of the People”. Mass is, therefore, an innovative and collaborative patchwork that puts a modern spin on the centuries-old Catholic sacred music genre. However, what really sets the work apart from canon are the lyrics and the choreography.
Unlike the performances we are used to hearing at church, Bernstein’s Mass is primarily a theatrical work. It begins with a vivacious flute solo that leads the choirs into harmonious worship. Then, slowly, discord and discontent divide the singers and actors, as some start questioning the place of God in their lives. Bernstein’s fine sense for drama and theatricality guide Mass to a bombastic climax that is every bit as purifying and ecstatic as the classical variant. Particularly against the historic background of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Mass turns into a grandiose modern performance that demonstrates the power of music, movement, and faith combined.